Snohetta, known for artsy, large-scale projects like the SFMOMA expansion, just inaugurated what might be the world’s most design-conscious fish market in Muscat, Oman’s expansive capital city. The 4,000-square-meter (43,055-square-foot) building shines bright white on the corniche of Muttrah, Oman’s largest harbor. The curved edifice hugs the crescent waterfront, responding to the city’s maritime settings. Several details take a semi-literal approach to the building’s function, its slim aluminum canopy and wavy body making obvious references to the shape of a fish as well as to the graceful curves of Arabic calligraphy.
While its neighbours Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Doha seem locked in a sky-piercing arms race of which can build the tallest hypermodern high-rises the fastest, the Sultanate of Oman’s lovely capital takes a decidedly different approach to urbanity, with no building exceeding 14 stories. The concerted effort to keep its mellow pace of life and skyline has preserved sites like the traditional souk, steps away from the fish market, where a labyrinth of alleyways radiating under the wooden roofs are packed with dimly lit, incense-infused shops glittering with gold, spices, and tapestries. The old fish market, dating back to the 1960’s, however, was a sad cement affair splattered with fish guts and blood.
Now, with this recently opened market, built on a new site close to the old one, Muscat is demonstrating to its neighbours yet again that you don’t have to build a Brobdingnagian structures to wow and draw visitors. Playing with light and shadow created by its canopy, the market at once reveals and teases. The perforated, radial walls allow plenty of light and sea breezes to pass through while blurring the boundaries of the building and the city. The corniche, the coastal promenade running along Muttrah’s harbour, has long been a popular place, with evening strollers and bike-share users. The fish market is firmly a part of this very public realm.
This isn’t just a prestige project without function, either. More than a hundred fish sellers are expected to join vegetable and fruit stalls as well as coffee shops and a rooftop restaurant in the works.
Best of all, this high-design market does not stand out from Muscat’s profile of boxy white houses stacked on deep ravines and waterfront bluffs. Harmony might be its strongest suit.